Science vs. Religion

Published on Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The basic incompatibility between religion and science was best summed up by the evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane:

"My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world."

It is true that religious or other cultural forces have often tried to influence science to support, or at least not undermine, their sacred tenets or ideology. That is obviously true. But true science is not swayed by cultural factors, rather by facts. A hypothesis is made. It is tested. The results are published. It is peer-reviewed and if the hypothesis holds up, it is accepted as true (until proven otherwise).

Such scientific truth-seeking, as Haldane said, is completely incompatible with religion which is essentially wishful thinking. Evidenced-based reasoning, scientific method, hypotheses, experimentation and statistical validation are the tools we use when scientifically analyzing the world around us.

The public perception for many religious people is that the earth is only 6000 years old. That explains the hostility many religious people feel toward science and the incessant attempts to change school science textbooks to include creationism or intelligent design. The academic dishonesty is entirely on the part of the religious.

Religion is a part of our DNA, programmed into us as a social animal requiring an alpha figure to lead. We see similar alpha dominant social constructs in other animals, leaders of the wolf pack, or baboon trip, even the queen bee (although the latter is built around quite a separate evolutionary track). But having made these observations I cannot credit an intelligent designer with having it made it so. Creationism believes the world is a scant few thousand years old, that dinosaurs were lost because Noah never carried them on the Ark, and that they coexisted with the human species before the Great Flood. There may be evidence of a "biblical flood" in the Black Sea basin approximating the time of Noah but I think it can be safely said that the demise of the dinosaurs had nothing to do with whether they had a boarding pass to the Ark or not.

There is a much more modern debate going on about the compatibility of science and religion. Modern scientists like Dawkins, Dennet and Grayling (in the NO Compatibility corner) are battling various other scientist groups which believe theologists and scientists can sit at the same table. Obviously science has been influenced by prevailing ideologies throughout history. During the Stalin era, the Soviet Union scientific establishment wasted a lot of time on Lysenkoism, the theory that the environment could cause an immediate genetic change in a living organism, because that theory fit nicely with communist ideology. Similarly, the Nazis mobilized their scientific community to prove the superiority of the Aryan race. But both these "theories" were simply not supported by the facts and didn't outlast Stalin or Hitler.

It is true that the church has funded science in the past? Obviously for much of the last 2000 years, the monasteries were sometimes the only places where education and intellectual thought was possible. My hat's off to the abbot Gregor Mendel for his stunning discovery of genetic inheritance in pea plants (a discovery that was rejected by the scientists of his day).

Many mainstream churches have endorsed the theory of evolution. But we mustn't forget the hostility that Darwin encountered from these same institutions when he first propounded the theory. If religious institutions now endorse some scientific theories, it suggests that science came up with the "truth" on its own and the religious folks (some of them) have finally "come around" to accepting this truth.

I think the theory of evolution was so diametrically opposed to the creation story of the bible and Quran that one can't find any religious "context" for it and that's why it was (and is still being) fought against.

In a recent issue of Discover magazine there was a postulated argument that the universe exists for life, because without life to perceive the universe, there would be nothing there. In a recent issue of the same magazine there was an article on Steven Hawking, the renowned physicist and cosmologist. In wrestling with the idea of what came before the Big Bang, it is proposed that this beginning of time as we know it event was a singularity, not too dissimilar to the creation of a black hole. One wonders if black holes as singularities are, on the other side, new Big Bangs creating new universes in which life arises to perceive their universe in the same way or differently from the way we perceive ours. These arguments, some testable (the new collider in Europe will be used I am sure to try to address some of this science) raises the most interesting speculations. What and where a god or gods fit in with what we are learning about the cosmos defies explanation. Behind what green curtain are they hiding? Or maybe they are on the other side of a black hole? Finally, if the universe is made for life and exists because we perceive it, as is being postulated in some of these arguments, whose perception is defining the universe? The perception of an ant, a bee, a gorilla, and a hawk, are all different from our perception. Ours is limited to our senses and the extension of our senses through the application of our science and technology. Does that mean we live in a multiverse right here with every viewer's perception defining each universe in its own way? I hope this livens up the discussion.

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